Bessma Momani is professor at the University of Waterloo and senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
For the past week, social media has been flooded with emotive and disturbing images capturing the recent escalation in Israeli-Palestinian violence. In a mere week, videos of the shooting of live fire in the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, the lynching of Palestinian Arabs in Israel, the torching of Israeli synagogues, rockets raining down on Israeli cities, the huddled families in Israeli shelters and the grieving Palestinian families in Gaza have all flooded social media. These images were captured on mobile phones and have spread through a variety of media platforms in the new age of user-generated content.
The more painful the image, the more viral it has spread. Studies show that emotive images and videos are more likely to be shared on social media than sanitized analyses. This can at times serve for good. Without the viral video of George Floyd pinned to the ground and shouting “I can’t breathe,” the murder of yet another Black man at the hands of police might not have initiated an even more impactful Black Lives Matter movement that has spread globally. Mainstream media have been criticized for whitewashing people’s pain and suffering while omitting the underlying context which fuels grievances; untrained citizen journalists are trying to fill this void documenting the impact of violence on their communities.
Today, people are armed with mobile phones and entering the battleground of duelling narratives and governments are attempting to reassert control in futility. Some jurisdictions are seeking novel ways to control the media through regulating social media companies and, occasionally, by shutting down the internet altogether. For example, Turkey has promulgated laws that require social media companies to censor content to which the government objects, India tried to suspend social media accounts documenting farmers’ protests and Myanmar’s military has repeatedly cut wireless broadband services.
User-generated content is not new in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. In fact, since 2007, Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has equipped and trained Palestinians to document life in the occupied territories to influence Israeli politics and international public opinion. Today, documenting their side of the narrative in real time, Palestinians and Israelis are simultaneously feeding a 24-hour ravenous global audience in search of insights into this long-standing crisis.
On one occasion, Israel may have duped the foreign press into reporting that it was sending ground troops into Gaza to smoke out Hamas members. An Israeli military spokesperson said it was all a communication error, but Israeli media quickly called it a planned ploy. Governments using the media for strategic purposes during armed conflict is not new, and social media has its own challenges with perpetuating deception.
Some images and videos circulated on social media have already been proven to be fake and misleading, including one video shared by an Israeli spokesperson claiming it showed a Hamas rocket launcher in Gaza when the video was actually taken in Syria, and another TikTok video falsely alleging that Israelis had set fire to al-Aqsa mosque as extremists chanted in the foreground when in fact it was fireworks that burnt a tree. There were no shortages of doctored images and manipulated or misleading videos circulating this past week.
Palestinian activists recently accused TikTok, Facebook and Instagram of taking down images and posts that documented human rights abuses; Israel ardently denies intervening to remove these posts. After social media pressure, the companies reinstated the posts, apologized to users and claimed they were made in error. Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz complained to social media company executives that fake news was inciting unrest. But the lesson here is that the line between protecting freedom of speech and fighting misinformation is a thin and, more importantly, a subjective one, particularly when documenting violence during armed conflict.
Another strike against press freedoms came when Israel destroyed two office buildings hosting more than a dozen media organizations such as the Associated Press and Al-Jazeera. While Israel claimed the high-rises housed Hamas’s intelligence and military offices, the Committee to Protect Journalists said this was likely meant “to disrupt coverage of the human suffering in Gaza” and called for “detailed and documented justification” of the attack.
Regardless of Israel’s intended strategy, in the one-hour warning that journalists had to evacuate the building, videos of journalists filming their colleagues scrambling to collect their equipment went viral, as did the collapse of the building amidst the crowded residential neighbourhood. All said, while emotive imagery that captures the human dimension of the conflict can sway public opinion, at present it is probably not sufficient to change the powerful entrenched Israeli-Palestinian geopolitical reality.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.